Wednesday, May 20, 2015

An Acre Memory- Memorial Day

St Bridget's Chapel at St. Patrick Cemetery
This weekend my wife and I will drive into Lowell to make our annual pilgrimage to the cemetery.  Memorial Day had a different meaning when I was younger.  In the morning we would usually walk from our tenement on Broadway to Merrimack Street to watch the parade.   World War II was still fresh in many people’s minds, and veterans would stand at attention and salute as each flag passed.  Rows upon rows of soldiers marched in formation, and the vibrations from the bass drums could be felt as the bands passed by.  The afternoon would mean a drive out to the cemetery. 

My father’s parents were buried in the flats section of St. Pat’s near the back gate.  Most of the year, it looks a little sad.  There is little if any landscaping and many of the stones have been overgrown with sod and grass clippings.  I always thought of this area as the workers’ section; those who spent their lives in the mills and factories and could not afford the grand marble or sculpted granite crosses.  But on this one weekend of the year, many if not most of this section would become a field of red geraniums and potted plants.  All along Gorham Street were flower stands where vendors would charge what they could to those who wished to say their dead, “We remember.”  Every now and then, a small American flag would be stuck in the ground to mark the grave of those who served their country.   My mother’s side of the family, being French, was buried at St. Joseph’s Cemetery (Cimetiere St. Joseph).  Each year we cleaned the marble marker.  I would walk around trying to translate the French inscriptions, and ask my mother what each meant.   We would light candles at home or at church to remember those who went before us; a practice my wife and I continue.
Today there are far fewer visitors on Memorial Day.  The fields of flowers that would transform the yards of stones into gardens are sparser than they used to be.  The traffic that would clog the entry ways into the cemetery don’t happen much anymore.   We’re busier today.  Our belief systems have shifted.  Traditions have been forgotten, or maybe they are just dormant for a while. 
O'Connell Family Monument
One annual visitor to St Patrick’s Cemetery was Cardinal O’Connell.  He was a regular celebrant of the annual Mass at Saint Bridget Chapel in the 1920s.  His first act would be to visit his parents’ grave near the office area where his limo would drop him off.  He’d kneel at the gravesite where he’d say a silent prayer and then proceed to the Chapel.  Some locals recalled that as soon as Mass was over he would be whisked out of town back to Boston and the “palace” he had built for himself.